Ann Arbor human trafficking conference promotes collaboration

"The victims of human trafficking are right in front of our noses, but they're invisible," Peg Talburtt says.

As a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force and founding co-chairperson of the Washtenaw Anti-Trafficking Alliance, the Ann Arbor resident has been working to help change that here.

Talburtt and other Washtenaw County representatives joined nearly 200 social service workers, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victims' advocates, and community activists from across the state last week in Ann Arbor for the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission's first conference on human trafficking.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette and the trafficking commission hosted the one-day conference at Weber's Inn, along with the State Court Administrative Office and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Human trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking, according to Schuette's office. The U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 2,515 human trafficking incidents were recorded nationwide between January 2008 and June 2010. Of those incidents, 1,016 involved sexual exploitation of children, 1,218 involved sexual exploitation of adults, and 350 involved labor trafficking.

Ann Arbor was chosen as the conference site for its central location between southeast Michigan and Lansing, according to Schuette's deputy press secretary, Megan Hawthorne.

"The conference was an opportunity for groups who had not been able to collaborate previously to do so," she says.

The conference included first-hand testimony from a trafficking survivor and a keynote presentation by an Ohio judge who oversees a program that helps trafficking victims struggling with drug addiction.

For Talburtt, it was an opportunity to network with representatives from other organizations and share perspectives across regions and sectors.

"We're very lucky as a county to have some unique resources here, but we also can take some lessons from other states," she says.

Among those resources are the University of Michigan (U-M) Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic and the Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Specialty Court.

Elizabeth Campbell, clinical assistant professor at the U-M trafficking clinic, helped develop the specialty court, which opened in Ypsilanti two years ago. The court's goal is to rethink how the legal system handles cases that might be linked to trafficking, such as prostitution arrests.

Campbell gave an overview on human trafficking and also participated in a panel discussion on implementing Michigan's legislative approaches to protecting adult victims. Following the conference, she said she was particularly encouraged by Health and Human Services' participation in the event.

While the trafficking industry is growing quickly, anti-trafficking efforts are doing the same. Since forming a little more than a year ago, the Washtenaw Anti-Trafficking Alliance has grown from three to about a dozen regular attendees at monthly meetings, with about twice as many members on its email list. The volunteer group's current projects include a campaign to increase local visibility for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and developing protocols for local 211 responders to identify and help potential trafficking victims.

Talburtt notes that while more than 20 new Michigan trafficking laws have taken effect in the past year, there's still a lot of work to do if they're going to help the people they are meant to.

"If you don't have the laws, you don't have anything," she says. "But now we've got to add substance and teeth to the procedures and the protocols for the implementation of those laws, and then for the services that really take those laws down to the people who need protection and who need to be represented fairly in the legal system and also in the health and human services system."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

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